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"What’s happening in…Madrid?" by Andrés Isaac Santana

Museo Reina Sofia (MNCARS)

Global village, modern city, cultural metropolis or laboratory of simulations?

Any approach, interpretation or evaluation of a city’s artistic life, especially if the inquiry takes as its furtive object of disorderly desire contemporary art and/or aesthetic practices that are produced or exhibited there (along with their institutional frames of reference), runs the risk of being either partial and exclusive or rash and erratic. Keeping this in mind, it would be worthwhile to briefly examine the forms that the exhibition and promotion (hence visibility) of contemporary art takes in Madrid, as well as casting a glance at the organizational and institutional basis upon which the scene sustains itself.

Like any other European metropolis capable of earning recognition as a city of the arts, Madrid boasts of possessing a strong institutional system whose articulation is set in motion through an ample network of galleries, cultural centers, universities, museums, foundations, art schools, associations, artists collectives, exhibition spaces, and institutions of all sorts, both public and private… If we add to this the fact that in Madrid a series of competitions and other events with an international profile take place regularly, including the Feria Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo (ARCO) and PHotoEspaña, then we have to revise the pessimistic, even apocalyptic opinions held by some critics and intellectuals who, when it comes time to judge the artistic and socio-cultural status of Madrid, regard it as provincial in the extreme.

A rigorous assessment of Madrid’s gallery scene is enough to confirm the restiveness typical of the modern city in its national competition with rival Barcelona, despite the latest political rumblings of the latter, and its headstrong posture regarding Catalan nationalism. The international ambitions of Madrid’s galleries when compared to similar cities, is a feature to bear in mind. Apart from the numerous shows dedicated to local and Spanish artists, there’s a marked emphasis on international exhibitions, and certain galleries stand out as leaders by virtue of their level of risk, of commitment to contemporary art, and for their lack of prejudice in showing a broad range of idioms, beyond the ever-present threat of failure when faced with a tradition of collecting that hasn’t yet reached the scale that it enjoys in other cultural ambits of the city.

Ruth Gómez - Animales de Compañía 1 (2005); Courtesy Galería Olivia Arauna (Madrid)

Madrid’s galleries opt for combining shows of Spanish artists with the poetics of numerous international figures. Those that have two spaces normally take that into account when planning their exhibition schedule. The two spaces aren’t always located in the city’s center, which attracts interest to other areas of the city, less favored by the concurrence of spaces. Others, like Distrito Cu4tro, decided to give distinct names to each space, introducing certain subtleties that can influence viewers when visiting whatever show is on at the moment.

A good number of Spanish artists agree with the growing international reach of Madrid’s galleries. Nonetheless, they point to it as the reason why galleries frequently deny them the opportunity to show their work. This reproach, which I can understand to an extent, is completely unjustified when the galleries function without public funds or support. That’s why they can claim the right (and they have it) to promote and show work that, according to their viewpoint (right or wrong) guarantees them a certain cachet as well as presumed profits. This situation should be taken into consideration by institutions that operate with public money, and which could easily devise competitions, events, spaces for the presentation of young artists and projects that are nominally alternative when compared to the norms followed by Madrid galleries. A little audacity wouldn’t be out of place either for those spaces whose aim is to keep the situation vital and up to date, in so far as artistic creativity is concerned.

At any rate, there’s an evident lack of spaces and areas for debate (be they alternative or initiated by art institutions themselves), where all those involved in the arts would have a voice. The specialized press publishes its articles, criticism (sometimes cutting and tendentious) appears, competitions take place, shows open and close, and the sound of debate hardly exceeds that of any coffee shop or an animated conversation with a friend. In contrast to what happen in other countries, in Latin America, for instance, where disagreement and protest are almost ontological signs of identity, in Madrid there exists a kind of amnesia and autism that neutralizes any heated discussion and debate about those phenomena that mediate and condition the success of the art scene, or lead it to absolute delirium. The discussion, which is carried on with such arrogance in the political sphere, would be more than appreciated in the art world and its praxis in the context of the city. The press itself could help a bit more to generate this policy of debate. The response should gain even more attention, transcending even the unilateral nature of judgments.

On the other side of the equation are the large institutions (private and public): museums, foundations and cultural centers. The exemplary case, whether or not one is in agreement with certain projects or functions, is the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS).3 the Temporary Exhibitions department, directed by Marta González, presents an important number of exhibition that range from single curatorial projects to revisions of a historical bent that throw light on artists or movements (sometime little known in Spain), and much more ambitious essays that suggest new epistemological positions and question certain notions consecrated by academia, prone to historicist readings.4 Completing the picture are The Palacio de Cristal and the Palacio de Velázquez, both located in the Retiro Park and belonging to the Reina Sofia, two further spaces with important advantages from a museological perspective.

Within MNCARS, Espacio Uno (founded by Rafael Doctor, current director of MUSAC in León, Spain) tends toward more contemporary curatorial initiatives of living artists, though as it’s the only space more focused on the strictly contemporary, it could be a little more adventurous in its proposals.5 Jean Nouvel’s new building offers enormous possibilities for the temporary exhibitions program, not to mention the impact it will have on the future redesign of the permanent collection.6

As has occurred with the galleries (it couldn’t be any different, given that’s it’s a national museum), the exhibition program has a rigorous international character and viewpoint, no matter how much certain sectors of the sensationalist media insist on denying it. A non-partisan examination of the most recent exhibitions will confirm it, though a more adventurous exhibition policy could be implemented, one which didn’t depend solely on names already consecrated by the mechanisms of validation and prestige (at times deceptive). I think that’s one of the reasons for the level of vehemence among part of the critical apparatus who are screaming for some changes (and hence liberation) from what they see as tending to be an overly conservative policy, something which will have to be analyzed more deeply, from the perspective of what the functions of a museum categorized as “national” should be, in comparison with cultural centers and foundations, whose margin for strategic maneuvers is greater. The program of the Audiovisual Department, directed by Berta Sichel, is, beyond all gratuitous praise, among the Museum’s best, yet it finds little echo among critics.

Ruth Gómez - Animales de Compañía 1 (2005); Courtesy Galería Olivia Arauna (Madrid)

City Hall and the area’s regional government, the Autonomous Community of Madrid, also contribute to the hectic and sometimes thankless artistic panorama. The Sala Alcalá 31 space, which belongs to the Community, and the Centro Cultural Conde Duque, where the Minicipal Museum is also installed (both are administered by the city), constitute two venues for the exhibition and promotion of contemporary art. Alcalá 31 has become a reference point for interesting projects in harmony with the conflicts and problems that currently occupy the debate about art and its vagaries. Sometimes, however, a very marked difference becomes evident between the rigor displayed by some of the collective initiatives and the fragility of various of the independent curatorial proposals, which are mostly adjudicated to the same people. But this space can be considered as a good promotional platform that inclines towards shows with the aim of surveying current phenomena and viewpoints. Its latest exhibition, organized by the artists’ collective El Perro, confirms its status as a cutting edge institution.

The different exhibit halls of the Círculo de Bellas Artes also lend themselves to contemporary art, especially when it forms part of macro-events that mobilize Madrid’s art scene, such as Photoespaña, the Festival Internacional de Fotografía, which is celebrated every June, featuring various curators and a specific theme. Apart from the more historically oriented shows that survey various thematic or topical genealogies (such as that of contemporary photography), many more make incursions, with more or less success, into modern aesthetics. El Canal de Isabel II (of the regional government) and the Fundación Canal also furnish interesting contributions to the dialogue about and treatment of contemporary art. The first is oriented toward photography, while the second tends towards exhibitions that include recent work by internationally known artists, as well as shows involving fashion, design and other areas of artistic expression.

The work done by the Casa de America’s Department of Visual Arts is interesting, with shows whose emphasis is placed on the ample and turbulent cartography of contemporary artistic trends in Latin America, with the aim of exploring some of the emblems of aesthetic configuration that characterize the zone, Still, sometimes its approach is also conservative and boring in the extreme, due to proposals that arouse little interest, or to work that reiterates or restates the work of others that would indeed merit attention.

Few ventures have emerged outside the institutional context. One notable example is Doméstico, precisely for that harmless need and fascination we all have for whatever distinguishes itself from the conventional, the already seen. But the alternative aspect of the project is in doubt because it’s not self-financing, but depends on institutional funds.

Among the large private entities that play an important part in the promotion of contemporary art, though with a clear inclination toward an international curatorial preference, are the foundations and venues linked to the banking sector, most significantly the savings banks: Caja Madrid and La Caixa (the latter headquartered in Barcelona’s Caixa Forum). Most of their shows are not strictly focused on recent production, or even on the languages most common to it, but they do offer revisionist readings from a clearly contemporary perspective. That’s also the case with the Museo Fundación Thyssen Bornemisza, where each show not only attempts to beguile us with beautiful pieces (in keeping with the arrogance typical of curators), but offers utterly up to date and relevant interpretive materials.

Two other financial enterprises are obligatory stops on any visit: the Fundación ICO (whose current show on one of the most important architects and designers of the 20th century, Marcel Breuer, is spectacular), and La Casa Encendida, the most daring and innovative in aesthetic terms, with an evident tendency toward the experimental. This center cedes space to the work of emerging artists and sponsors two competitions: Inéditos, for young curators, and Generación, for artists, in conjunction with Caja Madrid.8 Fundación Telefónica, the last example of an endless list,9 is strongly committed to contemporary art (with cutting edge shows that have led to rethinking certain dogmas and value judgments about art and its presumed limits), and exhibitions touching on the aesthetic discourse of a particular country or the sociological aesthetics of an entire continent, as with Open Maps: Latin American Photography 1991 2002.

Finally, there are the fairs and other international events that animate the city when they take place. There are several such events, but in degree of importance (as much for its drawing power, which is large, as for its sustained tradition) ARCO represents the moment of maximum visibility for contemporary art in Madrid.10 An incalculable number of galleries, collectors, critics, curators, foreign institutions, and artists from all over the world meet in Madrid each year during the month of February in order to make mysterious deals and establish infinite dialogues with the most recent trends in art. With a structure now firmly in place, though with continual and annoying changes of nomenclature, ARCO features veteran as well as emerging artists (included in sections designed by international curators), and is Madrid’s most important encounter with contemporary art. People talk a lot about it’s importance, they speculate about its structure and drawing power, and they ponder rumors about its astronomical costs. But it would be wrong to forget that we’re talking about the principal festival dedicated to contemporary art in a city that is sometimes accused of false modernity, a somewhat globalized village and laboratory where the truly contemporary isn’t a reality but a simulated instant, an artifact of urban anxiety.

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